After seeing the promotional images and trailers for the chilled-out exploration game, Aka, where you play as an adorable red panda, I thought what was not to love? After a year of the intensity of Elden Ring, nothing seemed better than to just relax with a cute Animal Crossing-esque title for the festive season. However, Aka is truly a title I am torn on, so let’s delve into why.
Aka is an open-world exploration game developed by Cosmo Gatto that sees you playing as the titular red panda, which was an instant plus as who doesn’t love red pandas? The story picks up with Aka returning from the great war with the hopes of putting his warrior self behind him and living out in bliss, but it becomes apparent that that doesn’t mean the past is gone. The story essentially centres around Aka cleaning up the four islands he is surrounded by, carrying out quests for the array of unique and interesting NPCs, gardening, and just generally exploring. However, the main questline follows Aka confronting his former self through pieces of his past. As you might be able to tell, this seems kind of dark compared to the cute and bubbly outer appearance, which makes some of these sadder scenes quite emotional.
As mentioned, Aka reminds me of Animal Crossing and that’s not just because of the anthropomorphic animals! The visual angles and animations are similar, you are often foraging, and a lot of tasks require you to do some gardening in order to build items or mix potions. When you complete some quests or tasks, your friendship with the character boosts, but I honestly couldn’t find any friendship tab to ever refer to these again as it just seemed to pop up on the completion of the task and disappear into obscurity. It seemed like an afterthought or something that got scrapped halfway through development.
The sounds and visuals are the standout parts of Aka. There is a beautiful combination of paintings for ‘cutscenes’ against animation for gameplay, which seemed like a creative way to convey stories, flashbacks and other dynamic scenes. I also found that each location had a distinctive appearance and was also animated excellently. Likewise, each area and time of day had its own music so that they fit in well with your location, making for a more immersive experience. The character designs across the board are distinctive, well-crafted, and incredibly cute, from the baby dragons to the giant capybara-like beast catching some z’s, Cosmo Gatta truly nailed it for the adorable factor! On the downside of the visuals, I found the nighttime lighting to be way too dark if you are playing during the day and you can’t adjust the brightness in-game. This wouldn’t have been such a big problem except that a big chunk of the story involves ghosts which only appear at night.
Where I felt Aka fell short was the gameplay. Firstly, I found the interactions to be quite finicky such as talking to NPCs. There were several characters where the interaction button, shown by dashed lines, would appear above their head and I’d try to interact but either nothing would happen or they’d spin around on the spot. At first, I figured maybe I couldn’t talk to them until later in the game, but even after I’d completed the main story, I was still unable to interact with them despite the cue still being there. And this wasn’t the only gameplay issue I had like this. To travel between the four islands, you naturally need to take your boat between them. However, I found moving the boat to be hit or miss. You only had to drag it or use the directional keys to move across the map to the island you wish to travel to, but I often found the boat wouldn’t even move until I pressed the directional keys several times in the hopes of ‘warming it up’, but on multiple occasions, I thought I was just going to be stuck.
The most frustrating part of the gameplay was the vague quests. Aka didn’t make it particularly obvious where you’re meant to go to complete certain quests; it’d refer to the tasks and the characters, but no indication of what island this involved especially as at the start of the game, you’re unlikely to remember the name of every single NPC. This could mean you’re stuck running around each island desperately trying to find the character. Aka would have truly benefitted from listing the general location or even having some kind of waypoint for each quest. My mind immediately went to the fact that if you don’t play Aka regularly, how on earth are you supposed to remember what or who the quest involves if you come back to it months, weeks, or even days later? Admittedly, this issue would be mostly rectified if you’d already done a playthrough, but it’s still not very practical.
Also related to quests, I found that you don’t seem to get rewarded for completing quests but you do encounter items along the way, which mostly makes up for it. However, the worst offenders are several quests that never amount to anything such as the totem pole. You collect four totem heads across the four islands, and I figured this would have some significance, but nope. I couldn’t find a way for this to trigger anything or if it related to any other characters, which seemed bizarre considering the heads are mostly hidden away in caves or obscure places.
My next gripe with the gameplay was the card mini-game and I could not wrap my head around the logic or what you’re meant to do for this one. That being said, the developers have said that they are working to address several of the gameplay issues and are planning to make the card game clearer. The gameplay isn’t all doom and gloom either. I found the backpack to be an invaluable tool for inventory management and just generally completing tasks quicker especially as you have to trek across the map. That being said, Aka recently updated to include a teleport home option which greatly streamlined the process. Aka in general became a lot more enjoyable and smoother to play once you got the hang of what you’re supposed to be doing and where you’re meant to go.
Overall, Aka bolsters charming visuals, an emotional storyline, an adorable red panda protagonist, and chirpy sounds, but the gameplay drags the experience down. Once you eventually figure out where the characters are or what the quests involve, it can be a delight to leisurely play.
Holly played Aka on PC with a review code.